What is it with teenage fiction these days that it seems not to shirk from addressing some the most pressing ethical problems of the day, and in highly imaginative ways? Their sheer thematic ambitiousness – the Holocaust, betrayal complicity and guilt, disability, violence, war, terrorism and even planetary consciousness – has led to crossover audiences; no longer do adults have to be defensive about reading titles as varied as the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Book Thief, The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nightime, Holes and even The Hunger Games. Patrick Ness’s young adult fiction is right up amongst the great and the good.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first novel of Ness’s much garlanded Chaos Walking trilogy. As is the case for most serials, Knife is also, perhaps, the most tightly and sharply written of the three. The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men are thematically and narratively more expansive, including an ensemble cast and climaxing in a war of epic proportions between rival groups: the Prentisstown world of men, led by the compelling fascistic leader Mayor Prentiss; an ambivalent woman healer, Mistress Coyle, who with her supporters undertakes terroristic campaigns even when they lead to massive loss of life and the Spackle, an indigenous New World species led by no. 1017, who are intent on revenge. Knife focuses on the trilogy’s hero, Todd Hewitt who, according to the perverted masculine ideology of Prentisstown, must prove his manhood by discovering a taste for killing. The town is purged of women but Todd meets Viola, a young girl who arrives on an advance scout ship sent by new settlers looking to build utopias; the New World as embodied by Prentisstown philosophy is, of course, dystopian. As Todd and Viola both go on the run, more of the town’s horrific history is revealed. In exploring Todd’s vulnerabilities, his loyalty and affection to kinsfolk, friends and even his pet dog – in short, the ties that bind – the novel tracks Todd’s resistance to the fascistic regime. However, in its darker moods, Knife also suggests a horrified fascination with the inflicting of pain and death; in the series as a whole, heroes are as morally compromised as villains, and the latter have their “good” sides too.
While such a summary of Knife might give the impression of a run-of-the-mill sci-fi potboiler, what elevates Ness’s novel into an altogether different league are the ethical and philosophical questions asked. In a world where all men (not women) hear each others’ thoughts in a cacophony of “Noise”, a “clamour and clatter that never lets up”, the novel lays bare just how ugly human nature can be when “Your Noise reveals you”: sexual predation, avarice, selfishness, fear and terror. In such a chaotic world in which might is right and where pleasure is to be had in the exertion of pain, how does one remain human(e)? This is, of course, the ultimate question asked by the history of the Holocaust, and the Chaos Walking trilogy offers some startling parallels. In Knife however, Todd’s story of growing up as human is about vulnerability, bewilderment, loyalty, complicity and betrayal; love and loss exist alongside a resourceful individualism.
The novel’s tense and emotionally wrenching moments, its thrills and spills, transforms reading into an adrenaline rush. This is the result of a skilled manipulation of generic conventions. Ness’s awareness of popular cultural forms: the cinematic visuals, the action sequences as well as the occasional comic book rhetorical emphatics; the adroit deployment of first person voice; the use of present tense; the exuberantly phonetic (mis)spellings; the sly humour and wonderful typographical renderings of, especially, animal and insect voices (apparently crickets think “sex, sex, sex”) all make the novel vivid and immediate, and particularly appealing for any youngish reader. But the darkness of the tale, its adult themes and the quality of the writing make this a genuine crossover novel. The big screen beckons but I live in hope that the Chaos Walking trilogy will not morph into some Disneyfied tale. It deserves better.